John Breunig is editorial page editor of The Advocate and Greenwich Time
I’d like to say something you don’t hear often during campaign season: “I was wrong.”
Inviting Mike Love of the Beach Boys to speak about civility at Stamford’s Ferguson Library seemed as logical as having Donald Trump cheerlead at a Clinton rally. If you’re not of the band’s generation, think Kanye West. Rolling Stone recently wrote that “Love is considered one of the biggest @#&*! in the history of rock & roll” (to use the missing word would not be civil).
Much of Love’s reputation is the result of the hostile acceptance speech he delivered at the 1988 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Little did he realize YouTube would be invented and routinely burnish his reputation.
He began that speech by talking about harmony before roasting Paul McCartney, Diana Ross and Mick Jagger. Given the venue, it was like Teddy Roosevelt barking at Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson on Mount Rushmore.
He predicted people would leave the room “saying Mike Love is crazy.”
And so they did.
Bob Dylan summoned an appropriately glib riposte shortly after Love was hustled off the stage. “I want to thank Mike Love for not mentioning me,” he said. “… Peace, love and harmony is greatly important indeed, but so is forgiveness.”
Many fans found some measure of forgiveness when Love hit the road with the other remaining founding Beach Boys — his cousin Brian Wilson and Al Jardine — in 2012. Then he kicked sand in their faces by continuing his endless summer without them. So the band that played 172 shows last year is really just the Beach Boy. And Love knows the line in the sand for many fans divides Brian as the angel and him as “the Antichrist.”
A few years ago he began a string of successful lawsuits against Brian for back songwriting credits and royalties. Brian, the acknowledged genius of the band, managed to remain the good guy even though Love won songwriting credit and cash he’d been denied for decades.
I wanted to give Love a chance, but it was hard to imagine him being repentant after more than 50 years of boorish behavior. But Love proved me wrong. Here’s how he did it:
He was as surprised as the rest of us that he was talking about civility.
“I was asked to talk about civility in rock and roll. Well, this is going to be a very short conversation,” he joked in his opening comments at the Oct. 14 event. Unlike the Hall of Fame speech, he didn’t surf into troubled waters from there.
He spoke of Brian Wilson with respect.
Referring to his cousin’s struggles with drug addiction and mental illness, Love said poignantly, “We lost our quarterback.”
He admitted he was wrong to disparage his peers.
He blames his 1988 tirade against the Beatles and others on his failure to meditate that day. Ironically, he began his twice-a-day routine after learning Transcendental Meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with John, Paul and George (along with Donovan, Mia Farrow and her sister, “Dear” Prudence) in Riskikesh, India, in 1968.
“If I could take it back, I would … I’m just so grateful. I wish I would have been able to say all that in 1988. But all I can do is express my gratitude tonight and every day forward … better late than never.”
… And he shared why it’s good to admit to mistakes.
“At the end of last month, I got to return to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. . . . I got to say ‘I made an ass of myself’ to half of Cleveland. And while it’s never fun to admit you’re wrong, I felt a little better doing so.”
He proved he has writing chops.
OK, I may never forgive his “Kokomo” lyrics (“Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take ya”), but Love wrote a speech with some good one-liners (“civility is a work in progress. . . . I’m a work in progress too”). Reading his own words from paper carried an awkward charm. And some of his observations had a wisdom unique to a performer who has seen the view from both ends of the periscope.
“To understand rock and roll you have to know that whatever seems daring and bold now will soon become the establishment,” he said. “Look at a gifted artist like Kendrick Lamar… you may not know him … you may not like him … you may not understand him … but in a few years he’s going to be music’s establishment.”
He told me the speech took him a few hours to write and he was able to hit cruise control after locking into a theme based on musings about the uncivil behavior of the protagonist of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” You know her well — she’s the girl who (gasp) skipped out on a promise to go to the library and used her old man’s T-bird to cruise to the hamburger stand.
“I started with the premise of … how revolutionary it was for the girl to take the car. It’s complete surreptitious behavior on the part of the young lady,” he said.
He was patient and respectful with fans.
As he signed copies of “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy,” Love never blinked as strangers posed next to him for photos as though he was a cardboard cutout at the mall. When someone made a mild request, he growled, “Don’t tell me what to do!” … then cackled.
I recognized this wasn’t the usual crowd when people arriving in the lobby kept asking for directions. I later polled those waiting for autographs about where they were from.
Like a concert tour, each person brought me farther away: Waterbury … Portland … Marlborough … New Jersey. Curious onlookers murmured when I noted that Scott Chaussee was the likely winner, hailing from San Francisco. Then a voice rose from deeper in the line.
“What’s farther, San Francisco or England?”
The burr in the accent made it clear I was wrong about this too. Bill Ellis had come from Canvey Island across the pond.
But the person who put Love’s civility to the best test was musician Will Bozarth, 29, of Deptford, N.J. He was toting a vinyl copy of “Pet Sounds,” in hopes of adding a signature to the Beach Boys’ signature album. This copy was different from others Love had been signing, some of which still bore inky doodles from the ’60s. Bozarth’s copy had been autographed by Wilson and Jardine at one of Brian’s concerts in Upper Darby, Penn., a few weeks earlier.
Love signed his name next to that of his estranged band members. It was about then that I realized this event wasn’t really about civility and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. McCartney, Jagger and Ross can take it. This was about civility to fans. A few moments later Love talked to me about humility and treating people decently.
“I veered a couple of times but learned from it. I think that part of life is learning,” he said.
So yeah, I was pickin’ up good vibrations. Maybe’s there’s hope after this election after all.